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Proposed rule changes could threaten Vermont’s school choice

By   /   January 11, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo courtesy of Putney Central School

SCHOOL CHOICE: Vermont Board of Education proposed rule changes will threaten choice, some say.

Proposed rule changes that affect independent schools caused an uproar at two well-attended public events last month, but opposing parties say they are aware of each other’s viewpoints and are continuing talks.

The controversial changes, which were proposed by the Vermont Board of Education and would impact over 80 private schools, will require more school financial accountability, a demonstration of open admission policies and wider special education opportunities for students with those needs.

Vermont’s four largest private academies — St. Johnsbury Academy, Burr and Burton Academy, Lyndon Institute and Thetford Academy — would be affected by the rules, as well as smaller schools such as the Compass School in Westminster, which enrolls 70 students.

“The State Board of Education seems to view all independent schools as fitting a narrow image of elite prep schools,” Rick Gordon, director of the Compass School, said of the board’s actions.

At the two public hearings in December — one at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, and the other St. Johnsbury Academy in St. Johnsbury —  state board members got an earful regarding the perceived threat to local school choice.

Angelique McAlpine, founder of School Choice Vermont, a volunteer organization supporting tuitioning and school choice laws, said that the public reaction in choice towns is understandable.

“Tuitioning in Vermont has been part of the educational landscape for about 140 years,” McAlpine told Watchdog.

“Tuitioning exists in certain towns … that don’t have designated schools to serve particular grade levels. Current tuitioning laws include private independent schools that are approved by the state. Tuitioning towns are not required to provide transportation for students.”

One area of concern, especially for Vermont’s smaller independent schools, is the added cost of resources needed to meet the proposed rules for special education.

“Presuming public districts would pay for special education,” Gordon said, “serving a student in any single disability category may be achievable. The more challenging situation is a student with multiple disabilities.”

Gordon said a bigger school is better equipped to provide these services at a lower expense to taxpayers.

While state board members are evaluating the comments gathered at the recent meetings, there’s still more work to be done to reach an agreement.

“We don’t understand the uproar, but we are listening,” said Stephan Morse, chair of the Vermont Board of Education.

“Most of the larger schools affected by the proposed changes are already following the proposed rules. So, I think this is being misinterpreted as an attack against school choice; it is not. The board is interested in more school choice expansion, but we’re looking for a little more accountability when receiving these public funds.”

McAlpine said that there are approximately 90 choice towns with students who are tuitioned with public dollars to attend a school of their choice.

According to Mark Tashjian, headmaster of Burr and Burton Academy, approximately 800 people attended the second rule-change meeting at his school. Over 400 people attended the first meeting at St. Johnsbury Academy.

“Everyone involved is trying to do what’s best for Vermont and for the kids. The problem is really different perspectives,” Tashjian told Watchdog.

“I consider the proposed rules to be devastating, but we’re moving productively. The proposed changes would have a profound impact on Vermont’s choice towns — so that’s why this is a school choice issue. The effect would be reducing the choices that are available.”

Thomas Lovett, headmaster of St. Johnsbury Academy, agrees with Tashjian.

“School choice will be diminished if any of the independent schools close that are now open for students with vouchers,” Lovett told Watchdog. “Some schools cannot afford things like full annual audits, NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) accreditation, or to hire a special education coordinator.”

Lovett said that some schools use a mission-based admissions process and would not comply with the State Board of Education’s proposed open admissions rules, but they would comply with federal and state non-discrimination laws.

“Until the Board of Education revises the catch-all provision that requires independent schools to comply with all federal and state laws and regulations applicable to public schools, St. Johnsbury Academy would not comply,” Lovett added. “That would dramatically affect school choice here in the Northeast Kingdom.”

Morse acknowledged that some of the rule proposals, as written, caused public confusion.

“We will rewrite these parts,” he said. “We are meeting with a group of school headmasters, and we’re working to resolve the issue because it is not the threat some folks think it is; school choice is not being threatened here.”

While school choice concerns aren’t going away in communities such as Manchester, St. Johnsbury and Westminster, Tashjian is at least more optimistic now that the parties are talking about the concerns.

“We appreciate the ongoing dialog. It’s productive and respectful,” he said. “Yes, there are deep differences in certain areas. Still, I am optimistic we’ll be able to resolve them. I’d rather not speculate about things though; for me, it’s about the availability of choices.”

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Lou Varricchio is bureau chief for Vermont Watchdog. He has 20 years experience in print and broadcast journalism, including newspaper work in Pennsylvania and also in Vermont, where he was formerly managing editor of multiple New Market Press newspapers. He was a senior science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, and appeared as the co-host on “Our Changing Planet,” a mini-series produced by the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium and distributed by Prairie Public Television. He has written, produced and hosted several science documentaries distributed nationwide through Public Radio International and American Public Radio. Lou can be reached at [email protected]